Thursday, October 16, 2014

Film Friday: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011)

I despise the hillbilly slasher genre. Seriously, it’s always the same thing: some college kids stumble upon an inbred, deformed hillbilly who starts killing them for no apparent reason. These films traffic in mindless violence and clich├ęs, and they are duller than dirt. In fact, they are so bad they can’t even be parodied because they are themselves parodies. Well, actually, it turns out they can be parodied. That’s what Tucker and Dale vs. Evil does, and I was really surprised by this film.

Plot

When I first heard of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, I had no idea what it was about. This is one of those films with little marketing muscle and no box office reach; if you want to see this one, you need to go find it, so finding out what it is about is not easy. Even the description at Netflix wasn’t particularly helpful. But I liked the title and I decided to give it a chance.

The story opens by introducing some generic a-hole college kids. We then meet Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), hillbillies from West Virginia. As this film appeared to be setting up a hillbilly slasher film, I almost turned it off at that point. Fortunately, I didn’t.
Within a minute or so, things change and it becomes obvious that Tucker and Dale are not quite what you expect. Yes, they are “country,” but they are also strangely urbane in many ways. In particular, they are clever. They converse at the level of college graduates. They express complex psychological and logical ideas. Their hillbilly background seems to have given them an inferiority complex, which they discuss openly. And they are headed to a “vacation home” they just bought in the backwoods to do some fishing and relaxing. These are not normal hillbillies.

As they stock up on provisions, like a six pound jar of pickled eggs, the group of college students pulls up at the same gas station and tries to buy beer. This leads to a series of accidental confrontations which freak out the college kids, making them think that Tucker and Dale are hillbilly rapist/killers. When Dale then approaches the group to speak to one of the girls, things go wrong because he’s holding a scythe and makes the mistake of following horrible advice about laughing at whatever they say. The college kids freak out and flee the scene.

A few minutes later, we discover that the vacation home is a fixer-upper which needs a lot more work than they originally expected. It also seems to have been owned by a mass murderer as the place is decorated in bones and there are newspaper clippings of killings on the wall. Tucker and Dale don’t seem to understand the significance of this, however, and they go fishing.
While they are fishing, they come across the college students again and they scare one of the girls who is trying to climb into the lake from a rock. She falls into the water and hits her head. They save her, but her friends, seeing this from a distance, believe Tucker and Dale have knocked her out and are kidnapping her. When they yell, “We got yer friend,” that seems to confirm the college students’ worst fears. They vow to get her back! This begins an amazing series of accidents in which most of the college kids end up dead in ways that hillbilly killers have used in other films, but which are purely accidental here.

I’ll leave the rest to you to discover.

Why This Film Worked

Parodies may seem easy because there are so many of them, but few of them are very good. This is because parody is actually quite difficult. The goal of a quality parody is to find some truth within the thing being parodied that the audience normally overlooks and then exploit that truth to poke fun at the original property. Some films are fairly good at this, like the first few Scary Movie films, which mocked various iconic horror scenes while telling their own story. Ultimately, those films weren’t particularly logical or realistic, but they were funny because they put their finger on flaws we overlooked in the iconic films they were parodying. Other parodies have been less successful. Take, for example, Meet the Spartans or any film from that set of filmmakers. These are putrid parodies because they simply repeat a story and throw in whatever gag they can think of into each scene whether they are connected to the scene in any way or not. Hence, most of the jokes were random, low-hanging fruit that just weren’t funny or relevant.

I had little hope for Tucker and Dale vs. Evil on the parody front. For one thing, the hillbilly slasher films are so poorly done as a group that they already operate as parody. Indeed, there’s very little left to laugh at in those films because you’ve already rolled your eyes at everything that can be parodied as you watched the originals. Moreover, it’s just not clear how you could make a hillbilly rapist funny or likeable enough to get you to invest in the character as an object of humor.
But Tucker and Dale vs. Evil did something fascinating. Rather than try a traditional parody, they flipped the story on its head and, in the process, created a heck of a parody that mocked all the usual silliness you find in hillbilly slasher films while simultaneously creating a film that was clever and funny in a totally unexpected way.

Indeed, this film gives you all the scenes you’ve come to expect: the hillbilly sodomy, the wood chipper killing, the chainsaw attack, the dead cop who failed to call for backup, the digging-your-own grave scene, etc.... but each of those scenes is twisted around in ways that are clever, strangely believable, and hilarious. Adding to this are the reactions of the hillbillies, which are polar opposites of what we’ve come to expect. Indeed, rather than being cold-blooded, inbred killing machines like a moonshine fueled T-900, Tucker and Dale are soft-hearted, sensitive, and terrified at what is happening. Dale doesn’t even like fishing because he doesn’t want to hurt a fish.
To give an example of what I’m talking about, consider the wood chipper incident. I can’t count the number of times some hillbilly tossed his victims into a wood chipper in other films. It happens here too, but not at all the way you expect. Here, Tucker is working with the wood chipper when the college students finally decide to “fight back.” To that end, one of the college kids charges Tucker, whose back is turned. Tucker bends over at the perfect time to pick up the next log for the chipper and the college student trips and flies right over his back into the chipper. Hilarity ensues as Tucker turns to discover the body and freaks out, and as the college kids entirely misinterpret what has happened as further proof that the hillbillies are intent on killing them.

Not only does this entire scene work perfectly in the sense of making total sense as to how it plays out and how each side reacts, but it’s also such an intensely clever and unexpected twist on a common scene from hillbilly slasher films that you can’t help but burst out laughing throughout the scene. Making this even funnier though is the priceless reaction of Tucker, who freaks out.

In fact, what really makes this film work are the hilarious reactions of Tucker and Dale throughout as they find themselves in a truly surreal situation with which they are ill-equipped to cope. Tudyk, who is one of the best voice actors ever (e.g. King Candy from Wreck-It-Ralph) and has played wonderfully enjoyable characters in shows like Firefly and films like Dodgeball, plays another gem of a character here. He’s the smart one of the two and he does indeed manage to grasp 99% of what is happening. Unfortunately, that last 1% is the killer as the conclusions he draws in each situation are simply dead wrong. This makes you laugh at everything he does.
Labine is new to me, but he plays Dale as a teddy bear with a crush on the college girl they save. He’s truly genuine and sensitive and it makes him incredibly likable. And the little romance that brews between him and the super sexy Allison (Katrina Bowden) is downright sweet.

And honestly, watching the creative ways the college students kill each other off by accident as Tucker and Dale try to stop them, only to be seen as having caused the deaths, is just consistently hilarious throughout.

This is one of those films that I expected to hate. I assumed it would be stupid and pointless and offer little more than a disguised slasher film. But it wasn’t. Instead, I found a film that is clever, engaging and hilarious. This is a film with characters you will like. This is a film that relentlessly mocks the hillbilly slasher films, but does so in such a good-natured, innocent way that you can’t help but enjoy the film.

I absolutely recommend this one.

Thoughts?
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Friday, October 10, 2014

Film Friday: 47 Ronin (2013)

47 Ronin bombed... to put it mildly. Generally, films need to make twice their budget to cover all their costs. 47 Ronin cost $175 million to make, but made only $150 million worldwide. In the US, it grossed just over $20 million. Clearly, audiences stayed away in droves. But why? Was it because the movie sucked? Well, not really. You might find this interesting.

When 47 Ronin was marketed in the US, it was presented as Keanu Reeves leads a small army of samurai against a magical army of demons. Kind of a samurai version of The Matrix. Indeed, it had all the hallmarks of anime. In reality, however, this film is definitely not any of that. What this film is, is a retelling of the classic story of The 47 Ronin with hints of magic added for flavor.
Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order? The 47 Ronin (known as Chushingura in Japan) is a tale from Japanese history which defines the ethos of the samurai warrior code (Bushido). The story takes place in 18th Century Japan and it centers around 47 samurai who find themselves unemployed when their lord is forced to kill himself. Their lord had been tricked into this by a court official who made it appear their lord had done something shameful. This resulted in the emperor ordering the lord to kill himself and forbidding the samurai who guarded him from seeking revenge.
The result of this was that these 47 samurai became what was known as Ronin... lord-less samurai. This is a shameful thing because it means they have failed to protect their lord or that they bear his shame as well, neither of which is a good thing. Thus, their status in society has collapsed from the top (samurai) to the bottom (mercenary). It’s a bit like being forced out of the SEALs to find yourself working as a mall cop.

Despite being forbidden from seeking revenge under pain of death, these Ronin felt such a strong sense of duty to their beloved dead lord that they planned to avenge his death against the emperor’s orders. To that end, they waited one year. Then they met up, infiltrated the castle of the offender, and killed him. More importantly, once they had satisfied their need to fulfill their duty, they satisfied their honor by gathering in the courtyard and committing ritual suicide to comply with the emperor’s order.
Their example of duty over all else and the importance of honor over life defines the Bushido code by which the samurai lived and, consequently, this story became central to the mythos of the samurai warrior. In fact, this story is so central that it's been told many times in many forms, including plays, wood prints, dramas and films. And here it is again.

As I said above, Keanu’s 47 Ronin sounded like anime when it was marketed. It was sold as some battle for survival against a supernatural army. But that’s not at all what the film is about. To the contrary, the film was simply a retelling of the 47 Ronin story. So needless to say, that was the first huge problem audiences encountered – misguided expectations.
The second problem was that this film has the typical pacing you find in samurai films, which is much slower that modern audience like. It deals with the same themes of honor and duty, which also don’t resonate with modern audiences. The characters tend to be one-dimensional because they are obsessed with their mission. The dialog is minimalist, but philosophical, both of which run contrary to general audience preferences. And finally, the action is very, very deliberate and precise. This is not shiny Transformers; here, a single perfect sword strike has much greater value than a loud, obnoxious fight scene. The result was that this film was anathema to modern audiences.
So it sucked, right? Well, no, not at all. If you enjoy samurai films like those by Kurosawa or others, then you may very well enjoy this film. I love samurai films and have seen dozen and dozens... but they are an acquired taste. They tend to be slow and contemplative. They offer little dialog and less explanation. They are not action packed. What they offer though, is a beautiful look into the psyche of Japan just as some of our best Westerns offer a beautiful look into the American psyche. I doubt very many people in the current theater-going world will enjoy such films. But there are a great many fans of the genre.
On the issue of magic, by the way, the film added three magical elements to the traditional story. Reeves is a half-breed who may or may not be part demon. This, however, ultimately means nothing to the story except as a vehicle to get Reeves into the film. The film also has a dragon, but the fight scene with the dragon lasts about two minutes only. The biggest addition is that the evil lord employs a shape-shifting witch to carry out his dirty work. As with the others, this has limited impact on the story. Indeed, each of these elements, while no doubt reviled by purists, struck me as adding tiny amounts of flavor to the story and made it feel even more "cultural"... so to speak. Each is consistent with Japanese fantasy, each fit into the film rather than making the film fit around them, and none of the three took the story beyond its natural boundaries. So while this made the story more fantasy than history, it left its essence entirely intact while giving you some nice surprises.

All told, I recommend this film if you are into samurai films. I thought it was well done, well shot and well told. The actors were good. The dialog was decent. The story was well-known, but also added fresh elements. I would rate this as an above-average samurai film. But if that isn’t your thing, then by all means, stay away because the film offers nothing beyond that... this is a niche film, and that's why it bombed at the theater.

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

TV Review: The Strain (2014-)

Non-network television continues to score really great series that show the extraordinary power of television compared to movies. The latest example is The Strain. I can’t say that The Strain is the equivalent of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, but it is one heck of a series and I’ve enjoyed it very much.

The Strain is a television horror series that premiered on F/X this year and it’s now completed its first season. You can still catch it on demand, however, and I believe Hulu has the whole thing at the moment. Created by Guillermo del Toro and based on a trilogy of novels of the same name, The Strain follows a CDC doctor named Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather. Eph is extremely talented, but not the best team player. He tends to take his job very seriously and he doesn’t care much about things like the economic effects of shutting down an entire airport, so his boss don't care much for him.
As the story opens, Eph and his team are called to JFK Airport in New York City because an airplane has landed and it’s sitting on the tarmac with no signs of life aboard. A disease of some sort is suspected. When Eph and his team board the plane, they discover four survivors who are only asleep whereas the rest are all dead. They isolate the survivors and send the bodies to the morgue.
At this point, the show feels a lot like the opening of a zombie movie... a high quality zombie movie, but a zombie movie. It’s not, however.

Eph is soon distressed to learn that the CDC has chosen to blame the airline for negligently allowing a gas leak on the plane to kill everyone and they release the four survivors from quarantine. Meanwhile, some key cargo from the plane is stolen, i.e. a massive carved box filled with soil.

The next few episodes follow Eph as his personal life falls apart (fortunately, this ends quickly in the series) and as he continues to fight with the CDC and continues to try to solve what really happened. In the meantime, we follow the four survivors as they become increasingly sick. Specifically, they begin to crave blood and their bodies begin to change in ugly ways. We also learn that the cargo was stolen by a rich man who is working for a German who is the agent of someone called “the Master.” These men have corrupted a great many people and in the first few episodes you see them call in favors. For example, they contact the CDC and get the investigation stopped. They hire someone to shut down the internet. And they have someone on Eph’s team under their control.
Soon enough, you discover that the four survivors are turning into vampire-like creatures. Moreover, the bodies in the morgue all come to life and vanish. Soon, this vampirism is spreading around New York City like a plague.
All told, this is an excellent series. It has high production values, solid writing, surprising twists, and great effects. The characters are compelling. Eph is a very likable hero. Prof. Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor turned pawn-shop owner, is fascinating, and his backstory (told in flashbacks) really adds to the story – something flashbacks often don’t do. The German villain, Thomas Eichhorst, a Nazi commander turned undead servant of the Master, is an excellent, creepy villain. And many of the minor characters have the kinds of moments that make the story feel rich and realistic, such as when henchmen realize they’ve made a mistake and they turn against their bosses.
The show isn’t afraid to kill main characters either, which is much appreciated in a show like this. The show takes its time too, which is also appreciated. In shows like this, there seems to be an impulse to get to the full on plague as quickly as possible, but that sucks the life out of those shows as it rushes all the high points and leaves little left to do except engage in fights. This show has resisted that and is building very slowly... steadily, but slowly. That leaves it lots of room to tell stories.

I highly recommend this one. It’s not Shakespeare. It doesn’t break all that much new ground, except the viral take on vampirism is pretty fascinating. What the show does do, however, is engross you with great characters and compelling storylines that will make you wish each episode was much longer than it is.

Thoughts?
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Friday, October 3, 2014

Film Friday: Riddick (2013)

I’m a huge fan of Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. Though different, both are excellent. I love Vin Diesel too. Hence, I had a lot of hope for Riddick, the third in the series. Unfortunately, try as I might, I just can’t like this film and I’m not surprised the film bombed badly.

The Plot

Before I outline the plot of Riddick, it’s worth revisiting the prior two films. Although both were written and directed by the same man, David Twohy, and both star the same actor playing the same character, they are remarkably different films. Pitch Black is more traditional science fiction with a narrow story taking place in a confined area. It is a character study as a handful of stranded characters struggle against an enemy that exists only in science fiction – a flock of blood-drinking, flying creatures who live in the dark, with the first half involving discovery of the creatures and the second half escape. This story was well written, well acted, well shot, and all around created a truly immersive experience for the audience, who had no problems believing what they were seeing.
The Chronicles of Riddick, by comparison, was a much more expansive tale. This one involved a marauding army of religious fanatics who want to wipe out or convert every non-believer the universe, and they do it by destroying planets. In this story, Riddick travels to multiple planets, engages in any number of fights or battle scenes, and ultimately destroys or saves millions of people. There is little introspection, no mystery, and less science fiction than action. Nevertheless, this film too was well shot, well acted and well written, and the result was a different but nearly equally enjoyable film.

As these two films were so different, the question became: would Riddick be more like Chronicles or more like Pitch Black, or would it be something else entirely?
Well, the story opens with Riddick getting betrayed by the Necromonger army he conquered at the end of Chronicles. He finds himself stranded on a desolate, hostile planet as a result. At first, he works to heal his significant wounds and master his environment. He befriends a dog creature. Then he essentially summons mercenaries (bounty hunters) to the planet so he can escape. Two different groups arrive, and when they do, Riddick warns them to flee, but to leave him one of the ships.

Naturally, they refuse.

From there, the film turns into a three-way struggle as the two groups of bounty hunters compete to get Riddick for their own reasons and Riddick works to eliminate them so he can take one of the ships and leave... at least until they realize that a storm is coming and once the storm comes, blood-sucking creatures who live in the rain will come try to kill them. Sound familiar?
Why This Film Didn’t Work

On the surface, I should have loved this film. The story itself was well written, the design of the film is excellent, and it was all well shot. Diesel remains an excellent actor and Riddick remains an excellent character. Yet, somehow, the more I watched this film, the less I liked it. And by the time the ending came, I really had come to dislike this film. But why?

I think the ultimate answer to why I didn’t like this film was that it felt like a cliche of the entire franchise. No new ground was broken anywhere and, to the contrary, everything you saw was stolen from one of the prior two films. For example, the set up for this film mimicked that of Pitch Black, with bounty hunters replacing the random passengers of Pitch Black. The monsters who attack them in the end are virtual clones in every substantive way of those in Pitch Black. The bounty hunters feel like total knock-offs of the bounty hunters (minus the charismatic Toombs (Nick Chinlund)) from Chronicles. What's worse, none of these characters had a real personality. They just stood around acting tough by standing very still and whispering death threats at each other. That got old fast.
More fundamentally, however, Riddick featured a change in Riddick's character that suddenly made him very hard to like: he became arrogant.

When Riddick was first introduced in Pitch Black, he blew me away. Here was a character who made the toughest of tough guys look soft, but at the same time, he was awash in traits we like. For example, Riddick never blew his own horn by telling us how tough he was. Instead, his nemesis Johns told us how tough he was. For his part, Riddick downplayed his own toughness. Riddick also demonstrated right away that he wasn't the cold-blooded killer his character was presented as. To the contrary, he offered help, guidance and moral support to the other characters. Indeed, he quickly became their leader because he had such strong leadership traits. Combining this with his desire to remain isolated and the other characters' fear of him created a wonderfully ironic situation where they needed him on many levels, but no one knew if he could be trusted except you the audience. That built a lot of trust and pulled you into the character; it made you like him a lot.

Even in Chronicles, where they raised Riddick's profile by declaring him a sort of dark messiah as the last of the Furian race and as the one destined to destroy the Lord Marshall and bring down the Necromongers, Riddick still remained self-effacing. In comment after comment, Riddick disclaims any desire to be involved, points out his own lack of education and his lack of ability to change the world. And the few times he was called upon to prove his toughness, he did it with his actions and a minimum number of words. This gave him a sense of humility and continued his reluctant hero character, both of which are traits we like in our heroes.
This made Riddick really easy to like. You knew he was tough, and the fact he didn't need to tell you how tough he was only made it all the stronger. You also laughed at his jokes and you smirked when the stupid bad guys took his self-effacing comments as an invitation to test him. But in Riddick, that character is gone. In Riddick, Riddick is presented as essentially invincible and he knows it. He comes across as a predator who spouts off smug one-liners and spews arrogance. There is no humor in his approach to others. There is no sense that he wants to help others who find themselves in trouble. To the contrary, his motivation seems to be revenge. He even plays with the main bounty hunter's emotions when he discovers that the man is here to find out what happened to his son, Johns from Pitch Black. This is a cold-blooded Riddick who is very hard to like and who offers little to liven up the story.

This is why I couldn't get into this film. The story and set up are entirely stolen from the first two films; there is nothing original. And what they have copied, they copied in style only but without the critical substance which made it all such fun. Add the lack of any goodnatured bad guy for you to sort-of cheer for along with Riddick, and Riddick changing from self-effacing, funny and misunderstood superhero into cold-blooded, smug predator, and you have a film that lost everything that set the first two film apart. It's no wonder the film made less than a third of the others and just over a third of its budget.

Thoughts?
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Friday, September 26, 2014

Guest Review: The Parallax View (1974)

by ScottDS

In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and several assassinations, Hollywood films began to reflect a more cynical and paranoid culture, where the enemy was often not out there but perhaps right next door. Thus was born the conspiracy thriller. People often mention Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man, along with lesser-known films like Executive Action and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. But for me, the most unsettling film of the bunch is The Parallax View.

Presidential candidate Charles Carroll is assassinated at the top of the Space Needle. An armed man is chased and falls to his death, but another armed man gets away. A Congressional committee determines that the assassination was the work of a lone gunman. Three years later… one of the witnesses, TV reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), visits her ex-boyfriend, newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). She explains that a number of witnesses to the assassination have died under mysterious circumstances – she fears she’s next. A short time later, she’s found dead and the police label it a drug overdose. Frady decides to investigate and finds himself in the small town of Salmontail where the sheriff tries to kill him near a dam as its floodgates open. Frady gets away and discovers documents in the sheriff’s house relating to the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Their stock in trade: recruiting assassins. Frady also talks to Carroll’s aide Austin Tucker but the boat they’re on explodes. Frady, presumed dead, applies to Parallax under an alias.
Frady is accepted for training at Parallax in Los Angeles. Apparently, he’s just what they’re looking for: a social malcontent with a chip on his shoulder. He’s shown a montage juxtaposing imagery (Americana, dictators, presidents, children, etc.) with words like “love,” “country,” and “enemy.” In the lobby of the building, Frady spots the gunman from the Space Needle and tails him to the airport. The man checks a suitcase but doesn’t board the plane. Frady manages to get aboard and slips a note to the flight attendant hinting at a bomb on board. The plane returns to the airport… as Frady and the other passengers walk away, all we hear is an off-screen boom. Frady’s investigation finally takes him to a political rally for candidate George Hammond. From the rafters, he spots several Parallax men disguised as security personnel. Shots ring out, Hammond is killed, and Frady is spotted. He makes a run for it but is killed by an unknown silhouetted figure. A Congressional committee pins Hammond’s murder on Frady.
There is a palpable sense of dread that surrounds this movie. It’s based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, who was inspired by the allegations of suspicious deaths of witnesses connected to the Kennedy assassination. The film was produced and directed by Alan J. Pakula who had previously directed Klute and would later direct the aforementioned All the President’s Men. (He also produced To Kill a Mockingbird.) I admit this film has lost a little bit of its impact in subsequent viewings, but the first time I watched it, I thought it was very effective. (It pretty much still is.) It does require some suspension of disbelief and if you’re looking for answers, you won’t find any. Only the political assassinations occur on-screen; we never see the other deaths. We also never get an official explanation about the Parallax Corporation and its activities. What are their goals? How do they get paid? Were they on to Frady the whole time? Who the hell knows? It’s all very… minimalist.
In Directing 101, they tell you that every element – art direction, cinematography, music, etc. – is there to serve the story, and this is one movie they can use as an example. The film was shot by Gordon Willis, who was known as “the Prince of Darkness.” (He also shot President’s Men and The Godfather trilogy.) This film has a naturalistic, moody style, with Beatty frequently dwarfed by his surroundings. There are shots toward the end of the film… mundane things like escalators and tile ceilings, but they way they’re framed (in full anamorphic widescreen), they take on a slightly more sinister appearance. Michael Small’s sparse score contributes to the uneasy feeling. There’s a theme, which works as a twisted anthem. The assassinations aren’t scored at all, nor is the sequence on the plane. And then there’s the Parallax test, which is given a folk melody with a male hum. The test took four months for the filmmakers to research and edit and it’s simple yet a little unnerving. (In the novel, the lead character simply reads words while his reactions are monitored with a special eyepiece.) And the first time I watched this, I nearly jumped out of my seat during the dam scene when the floodgate alarm goes off.
The acting is top-notch all around. This was Beatty’s first film after dabbling in politics (he worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign). I’m no Beatty expert – aside from Dick Tracy – but he’s very good, appropriately low-key and schlumpy. The doe-eyed Prentiss is only in the movie for ten minutes but her tragic performance certainly makes an impact. Frady’s ill-fated editor is played by screen veteran Hume Cronyn, Frady’s Parallax rep is played by stage actor Walter McGinn, and Anthony Zerbe and Kenneth Mars both make brief appearances. William Daniels plays Austin Tucker and he’s nothing but paranoid. A brief note: like many 80s/90s kids, I grew up watching Daniels as Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World. In addition to his voice work on Knight Rider, he was a prolific character actor. I particularly enjoy his appearances in two other Paramount films from the period: The President’s Analyst, in which he plays a liberal suburbanite, and Black Sunday, in which he plays a VA bureaucrat.

There might be a 70s vibe to the movie at times – the plane/bomb scene might be the most dated for obvious reasons – but it still holds up, though it’s not mentioned nearly as much as similar films from the period. I have no idea why. It’s very low-key, the character relationships are all very understated, and there’s no partisanship. (Frady doesn’t place blame on our government or any particular politician, and the Parallax Corporation goes after people of all stripes.) Pakula’s stated intention wasn’t to trash America but to simply ask what happened to it.

“We're in the business of reporting the news, not creating it.”

(Special thanks to Film Score Monthly’s online liner notes by Scott Bettencourt and Alexander Kaplan for the behind the scenes trivia.)
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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

TV Review: Once Upon A Time (2011 - ???)

Once Upon A Time is a television series beginning its fourth season on ABC. The first three seasons are currently available for binge-watching on Netflix. I’m actually not 100% sure I should recommend Once to you. Let’s put it this way, while I do enjoy the series a great deal, it has all the weaknesses that are typical of broadcast network productions and those rob the show of its punch. In effect, they prevent the show from feeling real enough to grab you or fantastic enough to be a wild ride.

The premise of the show is genius. Imagine if every storybook character you can think of, from Snow White to Captain Hook to some major surprises in between lived in the same enchanted forest and basically knew each other. Now imagine if all those characters were suddenly transported to our world, to live in a town named Storybrooke in Maine. Only, none of these characters has any memory of who they really are. The one exception is the evil Queen who cast the curse which brought them all to Storybrooke. She's made herself the mayor.
That has serious potential.

The story is largely presented through the eyes of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She was sent to our world to avoid the curse and save the rest of them. She, however, has no idea about any of this, nor does she believe it when she is told. Her only concern is Henry. Henry is the son she abandoned when she was young, and he lives in Storybrooke. He tells Emma about her destiny and shows her a book of fairy tales as proof that everyone in Storybrooke is from a fairy tale. Incidentally, he has been adopted by the evil Queen, who is raising him as her adopted son.
The episodes themselves involve Henry’s attempts to get his real mother to help him break the curse and free the people of Storybrooke so they can return to the enchanted forest. Each episode typically involves two stories being told simultaneously. The first is the advancement of the story in Storybrooke. The second involves the telling of some character’s backstory. If this sounds like Lost, that’s because Once was created by Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.
The backstories are interesting for several reasons. First, they tell you who the characters in Storybrooke really are. Secondly, they tend to take the stories we all know and twist them around. For example, we learn that Red Riding Hood is really a werewolf. We learn how Hook lost his hand. We get the story of who Prince Charming really is and how he came to marry Snow White, and we learn the sad fate of Stealthy the Dwarf... the eighth dwarf. Moreover, these stories are all intertwined and that intertwined thread is largely told backwards as we discover how Rumpelstiltskin manipulated each of their histories for his particular purpose. This makes for some nice twists.

All told, each episode is entertaining, though some are better than others. Several of the characters are really quite excellent as well. In particular, the evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) is excellent. She’s complex and interesting and you never quite know when she will be evil or when she will try to be good. Parrilla does a great job too of portraying a woman who is simultaneously wildly out of control and incapable of taking NO for an answer, and yet a woman who desperately seeks affirmation from other people. Even better, noted actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) plays Rumpelstiltskin, who is the heart of this show. Rumpelstiltskin is the evil force behind everything that has happened. He is a joy to watch as he manipulates everyone and demonstrates an utter lack of conscience. Minor characters like Grumpy the Dwarf and Hook are excellent as well, as is young Henry (Jared Gilmore).
Unfortunately, the show does have some problems. Some of the actors simply aren’t strong enough to carry the roles they are given. For example, the actor playing Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) is a lightweight who doesn’t come across as a capable leader. Emma, the lead, isn’t all that interesting either. She’s largely a placeholder to let the other characters do their thing. Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), another lightweight, is hard to believe too the way they present her.
Even worse, the show suffers from being produced for broadcast network television. Because it is being made for ABC, the production values are low. The CGI looks horrible on a big screen. Most of the sets feel like television sets rather than real places. Little in the show feels like it actually exists. Further, the show still panders to the broadcast view that each show must be broken up into acts, which are then separated by television commercial breaks. Thus, the demands of the story often feel like they are subsumed to the medium and each commercial break ends on a phony cliffhanger.

If you compare this to the better network productions, like those made by HBO or AMC, you will be struck immediately by the higher production values on cable. The film quality on those shows is that of film stock rather than the made-for-TV video like Once uses. This makes a huge difference in the “real” feel of the productions. Further, the cable networks rarely let commercial breaks dictate the pace of the story, and they will simply stop for a break rather than forcing in an unnatural cliffhanger. The result is that the cable shows feel more realistic, like they involve real people rather than actors. Moreover, the other networks aren’t afraid to interject more complexity. People die every episode on HBO. Lovers have sex and betray each other. Evil people do evil things which hurt people. And good characters are routinely presented with complex and difficult moral choices that rarely offer easy solutions.
Once has none of that. To the contrary, Once plays by network rules which tell you that main characters cannot die, evil must be cartoonish and incompetent, moral questions need to be obvious with easy solutions, and life’s underside has no place on screen. At times, I really wonder what HBO would have done with this amazing idea.

So ultimately, I would say that Once is an entertaining show that leaves a ton of potential on the table. It’s still worth watching, but it could have been awesome if it had been freed from the restrictions that still seem to haunt network broadcast television.
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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Is Disney’s Princess and the Frog Racist?

In its whole history, Disney has never had a black princess, at least until 2009 when it released The Princess and the Frog. But The Princess and the Frog is not a cause for celebration, claims the aggrieved-left, because the film is racist! Only, it’s not.

The Princess and the Frog is the story of Tiana, a black woman from New Orleans circa 1930s. She is a talented cook with dreams of opening her own restaurant, a dream she got from her father who has since passed. The story opens with Tiana working hard in a restaurant to save up enough money to buy an abandoned building to start her restaurant. She has finally saved enough! Hurray! Only, she's told that another buyer has appeared and she has only twenty-four hours to raise her offer, something she cannot do. Boo!
Tiana's friend is a spoiled, rich white girl named Charlotte, who wants to marry a prince, and it just so happens that a prince has come to town. This is Prince Naveen, who has been cut off by his family because he’s worthless and lazy. He and Charlotte are a perfect match -- he has the title, she has the money. However, the next time Tiana meets Naveen, he has been turned into a frog by a Voodoo witch doctor, who is plotting with Naveen’s servant to replace the prince, marry Charlotte and steal her fortune. Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him to change him back into human form so he can prevent this. In exchange, he promises to buy her the restaurant. She agrees, but when she kisses him, she turns into a frog herself.
At this point, Naveen and Tiana must venture into the swamp to find Voodoo priestess Mama Odie so they can become human again. Accompanying them are Ray, a Cajun firefly, and Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator who wants to play jazz with the humans. Trying to stop them are the witch doctor and his army of shadow creatures.

All in all, this was an excellent Disney film, easily the best after a miserable decade for Disney. The story is fast paced and relatable despite being both ethnic and deeply Louisiana. The art work is beautiful. Bits of the film are clever. And the songs are well done in a Broadway sort of way, which is greatly appreciated after Disney’s two decade use of ultra-bland, entirely forgettable corporate pop, like the song Elton John and Phil Collins kept passing off as different songs throughout the 1990s.
So what could possibly be racist about this? Well, that’s a good question. Several attacks were made on this front. Some argued that it was racist that Disney's first and only black princess wasn’t born a princess and had, instead, to marry into it. Others argued that the film used black stereotypes. Neither argument is valid.
That Tiana isn’t a princess is a key plot point which makes the story work. It isn’t meant as a sleight or to devalue her character either. To the contrary, her character is easily the most noble in the story. Nor is there any suggestion of a racial component to her lack of princess status. In other words, there isn’t a single suggestion, spoken or implied, that her race is the reason she isn’t a princess to begin with. And it’s not like all Disney females are princesses (see e.g., Penny, Jenny, Alice, Eilonwy, Meg, Jane). Essentially, the only way to see the decision to start her as a commoner as being a decision based on race is to assume that based on her race alone.

The stereotype argument is even worse. For one thing, there are no negative black stereotypes presented. Each of the black characters is presented as smart, capable, and (except for the villain) strongly pro-family and pro-community. Nobody is living on welfare, selling drugs or having kids out of wedlock. Nor are there any presentations that fit the “Uncle Tom” mold. The closest would be Tiana’s mother, but she’s not a servant; she’s an ultra-talented seamstress and business owner.
Indeed, the more you look, the harder it becomes to find any black stereotypes. What you see instead are Louisiana stereotypes aplenty. You have toothless Cajuns, everyone being a jazz player, voodoo princesses and witch doctors, corrupt-but-lovable parish politicians, gumbo-lovers, etc. Similarly, you have all the trappings of New Orleans: the bayou, gumbo, riverboats, the light rail, gators, etc. Everything in this film is regional rather than racial.

I think where the “racist” argument springs from is the idea that it’s somehow racist to show blacks in roles they occupied historically if they are shown to be happy and not the victims of white oppression. Hence, the fact that Tiana doesn’t struggle against white oppression offends the aggrieved left as a whitewash. That is ridiculous, however. In fact, if you think about it, this argument would relegate every black story to being about white racism, and blacks could never tell their own stories without the focus being on whites. Now THAT would be racist!

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Film Friday: The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games proved quite a sensation. Millions of kids the world over fell in love with the story and its heroine Katniss. It was only natural they would make a movie, and make they did. They eventually made four movies and this was the first. Interestingly, a lot of conservatives love this series, but I don’t see anything conservative going on in this particular film.

Plot

The Hunger Games takes place 74 years after some sort of nuclear civil war in the United States resulted in the separation of the country into a twelve districts (a thirteenth is mentioned, but is also mentioned as having been destroyed) under the dictatorial control of a central power. The country is called Panem, but few details about it are given. The film doesn’t even tell you where this central power resides, though you are told it is called “the Capitol” and it has the look of a fantasy version of Washington state.
The story focuses on a young girl named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). She lives in what was once West Virginia, where they mine coal which gets supplied to the Capitol. As the story opens, a group of “Reapers” shows up in Katniss’s district – District 12. They have come to run a lottery from which one boy and one girl will be chosen. Those kids will be taken to the Capitol, where they will fight to the death in a game of survival called “The Hunger Games.” This game was created as a punishment for the other districts for rising up against the Capitol and has continued on as a sort of bread and circus tool for controlling the population.
During the lottery, Katniss’ little sister is chosen, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. For the boys, a useless son of a baker is chosen, who just happens to have a long term crush on Katniss. They are taken to the Capitol by high speed train (thanks Obama!), where they meet the other kids, several of whom have been illegally trained their whole lives for this event... providing the richer districts with an advantage. Katniss’s district has never won.

The children are then trained and paraded before television audiences. They are told to be likable so that sponsors will send them critical gifts during the game. They are also taught martial arts. It turns out, by the way, that Katniss has superior skills to the other kids.

Finally, they are dumped into a forested area and told to kill each other off.

A Good Movie, But Hardly Conservative

I’ve heard a lot of conservatives, particularly libertarians, who identify with these books and swear they have libertarian overtones. That may be true of the books, but this film really doesn’t have political overtones. Apart from some vague populist finger pointing at a fantasy centralized power dominating the country in some future dystopia, there is virtually nothing political in this film, and certainly nothing that would qualify as a coherent political statement. Indeed, none of the characters fights for freedom. None of the characters even talks up freedom. The theme of abuse of power is barely explored, except as a plot device to heighten the challenge Katniss faces, and the theory of how concentrated power leads to abuse is entirely absent from the film. In fact, objectively speaking, we don’t even know that this government is particularly abusive except for the Hunger Games itself and the disparity of wealth between the various districts.
Moreover those things which are political tend to be generic liberal tropes, like all the bad kids being rich and Caucasian, whereas the good kids are minorities. This is combined with another liberal trope, the Magic Negro trope, where the sole reason black characters exist is to aid the white protagonist in finding their humanity... you have three of those here (two kids who sacrifice themselves to save Katniss in the game and Lenny Kravitz who exists to tell us how special she is).

So, as far as the film goes, there is nothing particular conservative going on.
In terms of the film itself, the film is shot with a high degree of quality. The camera work is excellent, the effects are solid and the acting is good. The film is well paced. The story itself is solid, if simplistic – essentially, this is a film about people hunting each other in the woods and the rest is just characterization. The characters feel unique (the unique costumes help a good deal with this) and they feel whole, as if they have strong backstories, even though you don’t delve into those. The action is good, though there is nothing truly spectacular. There are a couple holes, but nothing that will stick out to you as you watch the film.
The film does have a couple flaws, but they are minor. For example, parts of the film could use more explanation. One such part involves the sponsors. The film spends considerable time telling you the importance of winning over sponsors so they can send the contestants vital gifts during the game, and Katniss does ultimately receive two life-saving gifts. Unfortunately, the film never explains the mechanics of this, such as how many sponsor there are or the limits of what they can send. The end result is that something the film builds up considerably feels underused and you wonder why the contestants aren’t awash in more and better gifts.

Another issue that is both a positive and a negative involves this being the first film in the series. On the one hand, this film feels complete and it doesn’t seem to spend any time setting up the sequels. I appreciate that as too many films like this feel hollow and incomplete as they spend all their time setting up sequels with introductions that won’t pay off during the film. On the other hand, this story by itself doesn’t offer all that much to make you want to revisit the film. Indeed, I suspect the re-watchability of this film will depend entirely on the re-watchability of the sequels.

Ultimately, this film doesn’t feel particularly consequential, nor is it particularly deep, nor does it leave you much to think about after you leave the theater, but it is a good film that is worth seeing. I don’t really see the political appeal for conservatives except for a general lack of liberalism, but I suspect there is more in the books that didn’t translate to the film.

Thoughts?
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Friday, September 5, 2014

Summer of Films: Escape Plan (2013)

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are back together again! It’s too bad their film stinks. Indifferent writing. Indifferent acting. Uninteresting settings. Weak action. Yawn. This was disappointing.

Plot

Ray Breslin (Stallone) has a talent for escaping from prisons. He’s so talented that the Department of Justice hires him to break out of supermax prisons so he can show them their weaknesses and they can correct them. Indeed, the film opens with him doing just that, though his escape stretches credulity.

Soon enough, Breslin finds himself visited by the CIA. Because they can’t “rendition” the worst of the worst anymore, they need a new system to hold the people who should never be allowed to see the light of day. To that end, they’ve contracted with a private sector company to build a prison where they can make these people disappear. Naturally, they want Breslin to attempt to break out of the prison to test their new system.
Stallone agrees even though they won't agree to any of his normal safety protocols. Of course, the minute he finds himself in the prison he learns that he has been betrayed and that someone wants him "disappeared." He also discovers that the warden is cruel and the guards are sadists who maintain control by beating prisoners. What's more, they built this prison using all of his ideas from his book on how to build an inescapable prison. Now he must break out or spend the rest of his life stuck in this prison. Helping him in this regard is another prisoner: renown assistant cyber-terrorist Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Can Stallone escape and regain his freedom? Take a guess.

Why This Film Stunk

In 1989, Stallone did a film similar to this. It was called Lock Up. In that film, he was a minor convict and model prisoner whose time was up, but the warden wanted to punish him after he went to the press about the warden’s treatment of prisoners. This caused the warden to try to set up Stallone to spend the rest of his life in prison, which leads to a sort of prison escape film/revenge film. Lock Up had solid motivations, strong emotions and high stakes. It may not have been the best film ever, but it got your attention.
The problem with Escape Plan is that it never really captures your interest. For one thing, this film is entirely predictable. You know Stallone is being set up the moment he agrees to take the assignment. You know Stallone will eventually escape. It’s just not possible that these things won’t happen. Moreover, throughout, you know when Stallone will be punished. You know when he will learn whatever he needs to learn to escape. You know who his friends will be, who will betray him, who he will kill and how it will all end. There are two twists, but they are so incidental to the plot that they have no impact. It’s hard to feel any tension when you know how each scene will end all throughout the movie.

The characters aren’t very interesting either. Arnold plays Arnold the action hero. He technically has a character, but it’s purely incidental to the movie and it’s nothing you care about, and you know he's never in any danger. Ditto on Stallone. James Caviezel plays the warden. Normally, I’m a fan of his, but here he plays the character so indifferently that he almost seems like a robot at times. There are other characters, but you won’t remember any of them.
The writing is really poor too. There isn’t a clever or memorable line. There isn’t a moment of insight. For a man who supposedly is a master of escaping from prisons, there’s no moment where he tells you something you don’t already know about prison, about the human state of mind as a guard or a prisoner, or even about how he perceives the world. Basically, every line of dialog is transactional: “I need to get into that room.”

The action isn’t very interesting either. For the most part, the action is entirely asymmetrical. Thus, the guards easily beat up the good guys when they want to. When the good guys escape, they easily crush the guards. Then in the final shootout, the good guys mow down dozens of guards without any real risk to themselves. There is never a fight where you don't know the outcome the moment it begins, and at no point is there any fight which feels like a payoff.
So what you have here are characters you don’t care about, a story that means nothing to you, a story you can predict moment by moment, fights with no tension, and an utter lack of cleverness and nothing memorable to take from the film. The end result is a film that is entirely devoid of tension and interest.

Frankly, Stallone can and should do a lot better. Stallone is a capable actor with a good deal of charisma who should be picking much more interesting projects at this point in his career.

Finally, as an aside, this film also has whiffs of politics that aren’t appreciated. It seems to be assumed that the CIA is evil. The CIA tortures prisoners. The prison guards are sadists. The worst of the worst are all Caucasians, with the one Islamist turning out to be a noble heroic character. The “good guy” (Arnold) has invented a plan to destroy the world’s banks. None of this was shoved in your face, but in a film with little else to hold your interest, these little leftist tropes became rather annoying.

Thoughts?
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